The Derby Who could not enjoy the Derby? An iconic race on an unusual twisting track where the field drops into the straight and race downhill past rows of London buses. It’s one of the great British events. One of my favourite meetings of the year. On the eve of the Oaks, I was at Epsom to film a small fun segment for Channel 4. Hundreds of workers buzzing around, having meetings, preparing. Epsom, whilst it is a great track, disappointingly only produces one meeting of merit a year. That’s not a comment meant to impugn Jockey Club. I think the reason being the unusual nature of the track makes running more premium events there difficult. I think that’s a shame. It also argues the importance to the track of a financially successful Derby.
Jockey Club Racecourses have a talent for organising large festivals. I’ve been behind the scenes on many occasions. It’s impressive. I don’t believe people realise how much is involved turning a racetrack that’s done nothing for months into such a showcase for the sport. Chairs, bands, bunting, car parking, food and drink. The organisation performs the same feat at Aintree for the National, Newmarket for the Guineas, Sandown for the Eclipse and of course Cheltenham, to name but a few. They know what they’re doing here. And I love every one of the aforementioned. I don’t want to suggest otherwise.
JCR are, of course, the commercial arm of the once rulers of British Racing. They have a debt book to manage and of course it is vital to turn as many events as possible to profit. That’s business. One of their most successful tracks commercially is Kempton, tumbleweed blows about the place and never strikes an ankle. A product engineered for the shops. Little wonder Newcastle looks on with envy. The turf tracks such as Epsom and Sandown can struggle if their numbers dip
The Derby, arguably, is the second biggest draw in British Racing. For the last century (at least) its traditional slot was the first Wednesday in June. This was changed to arguably more lucrative slot on a Saturday. I have a big problem with this. I fully recognise the commercial importance of the event to Epsom and I also understand the stance adopted by the BHA in favour of large betting concerns in supporting so many race meets on a Saturday and more generally. I have been at odds with them on this subject because I do not accept the Sport itself benefits from this arrangement, nor the volume of racing, as advocated by Ralph Topping or Andy Hornby. They are running the sport to their gain and our ruin. If it was the case our beloved racing was ‘furthered’ by so many meetings on a Saturday (8 of whom competed with Epsom) – we would surely witness LBO’s about the country pushing racing in their shop windows. However the opposite is most certainly true. Shop windows are dominated with banners pushing the machines racing has no financial interest in. Shoving FOBT’s down our throats with warnings about ‘responsible gambling’ – You couldn’t make it up.
Mr Topping, shortly to retire from William Hill I’m glad to observe, led the pack of casino operators with an offer of 5/2 Australia to win the great race. After the flop of True Story in the Dante, William Hill were 4/6. £1 wagered netted £2.50 on the day of the race, yet would have won just 67p in profit the month before – a mere 32% drop in margin. Had Australia had one of his legs amputated I think the move would have been a fair one.Most business models would collapse at 5% drop in margin. Its a decision based on trying to suck customers away from rival firms – and driving them to other products. It’s a Levy wrecking exercise because it drives the whole industry to offering an odds-on chance at 11/8 by the start time, an industry 18% worse off thanks to William Hill. Roulette wins- Racing loses. Yet they claim to be supporting the Sport? Tell me how is Racing advantaged?
In shops more famous for restrictions on Racing and Greyhounds, the margin in betting terms on racing has collapsed, and let’s be clear on this – this is nobody’s fault but the Bookmakers. It’s a world dominated by pennies on exchanges and casino firms warring on market share. And it’s the latter that provides more liquidity, and therefore more price impetus. I’m suggesting alliances with such organisations are a waste of time if all they do is run the finances of the product to suit their own ends.
I don’t blame Paul Bittar for seeking a more convivial level with these firms. But I believe he has to recognise the realities in such a relationship. British Racing is a standalone product. The sport has become the conduit, the vital fodder such betting companies require to camouflage the presence of LBO’s proliferating our High Streets, as well as provide the background noise. There’s little chance of a fruit machine empire being granted free licensing by a worried government, but one that claims to be based on Horse Racing? Well that’s just British. At least it’s a British lie. Any potential profits from the Derby clearly sacrificed at the altar of market share. Should you care? Well for as long as betting profit funds the sport then the answer is yes. It happens at every festival, with rivals outdoing each other in offers so attractive they’re bound to be loss making. I’ll be glad when Ralph leaves, the firm might return to Bookmaking. I appreciate my view won’t be shared by Betfair, who have eaten King Ralph’s lunch for years..
The big story on the morning of the Derby – and the following morning, wasn’t Australia and his thrilling performance. The headlines were an England friendly. A French Open final won by a fox with nice legs. The Derby festival has competed in the past for critical airtime and exposure with England World Cup qualifying games and matches against Brazil.
The same is true abroad, with their own sporting events in direct opposition to The Derby. Overseas markets are crucial to the success of British Racing’s commercial arm in selling Para Mutuel tickets and sponsorship. Our Sport also managed shoot itself in the foot by adding 8 other race meetings to the mix. It’s all quantity. I hate using the term madness to such thinking, so I will use a different and less evocative term. Is JCR the only culprit in such activities? Absolutely not. York’s fabulous Ebor, Goodwood’s Stewards Cup. A couple of examples of races that are losing their identity.
I hear Channel 4’s Epsom figures as down 25%. That’s a very significant drop. Some would argue the format of the show as wrong. I’m no expert in television. I do, however, believe the network cannot be advantaged by forcing it to transmit in competition to so many other major sporting events, as well as air our sport in a more lucrative spot than Wednesday. I do believe Channel 4 should be beating on the door of British Racing to demand a better product to transmit.
Are such heritage events totally under the control of our racetracks as to when they are put on, or does the ruling body have to approve the change? I suspect the BHA has some control over such matters and if so I believe it’s time to resist further calls from tracks to move events to Saturdays where attendances gain, whilst the Sport unquestionably loses. I would go further. I think it’s time the sport restricted payments of Media and Levy to any more than two Premier Race Meetings on each Saturday. Broadly this means events such as the July Cup – would not be funded in opposition to Newbury and Chester’s big meetings on the same day. Is this so radical? Not really. Is it easily done in a BHA board with such a hefty racetrack bias? Ehm, er, well..
It’s time for a complete re-think on how we further the Sport both commercially, as in sales of TV rights and Betting abroad, and in its profile. Paralleled with providing improved midweek racing, to encourage traffic into our betting shops. We need to spread out the jewels – not compete for air time, coverage, newspaper space as well as for Betting by hosting The Derby on the same day as England vs Honduras. And yes, I’ll say it, less racing to deal with the issue of small fields. I don’t think people fully understand the negative impact on the sport when five runners set out to post.
And if you’re sitting there thinking the Oikball can’t compete with our Derby because we’re so fabulous? Bear in mind 1.5 Million watched Australia’s romp, and 7.5 Million watched the brainless ones flop about the field in a friendly. Let us not also forget sponsorship for the Derby was only recently saved by Investec who came in at the eleventh hour two years ago and doubtless saved themselves a few quid. Would a Wednesday Derby have been in the same boat for sponsors? Such investments prosper from sporting events from exclusive coverage and exposure.
It’s time to stand up to the racetracks on this subject – and force these iconic sporting events to be moved back to their original midweek slots for a host of good reasons, contra their natural desire to profit more from a Saturday. At the end of the day ‘ownership’ of the top races in the calendar carries a responsibility to produce more than numbers through the turnstile – although I doubt the Derby’s Saturday figures are that much better than when it was hosted on a Wednesday. I recall queues of traffic for the Derby. Last Saturday I breezed in. The race has certainly lost some of its mojo.
We should enthusiastically place Premier race events midweek with a rights and levy structure which encourages movement off of weekends. Why do we permit Chester, York, Ascot and Goodwood on one day and Leicester, Ffos Las, Windsor and Ripon on another? What are our expectations here? Would you walk into a store if the quality varied so much from one day to the next? Why was Newmarket for example permitted to move its July Cup from an unchallenged slot – to one where it competes and denigrated other fixtures, as is the case on ‘Super Saturday?’
Broadening the appeal of Racing involves dealing with the huge holes in the fixture programme left by top tracks abandoning midweek posts in favour of more lucrative weekend slot. Our winter and the great sport of National Hunt is dying on its feet, if you hadn’t noticed, with the smallest fields on record and a movement toward Cheltenham for the top horses which leaves months of high class, well-funded racing either subject to small ‘match’ races or worse simply won by lesser horses. Such issues are partly driven by a lack of control over racetracks and structures that permit horses to laze about in their boxes instead of being forced to compete in a qualifying number of races each season. We need tighter controls if we are committed to a quality product.
There’s only one Derby